April 24, 2009
Building character, engendering national pride through sports Pt:1


(An address delivered by Adrian D. Saunders at the Awards Ceremony of the National Sports Council of St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Saturday, 19th April, 2009)

It is a great privilege and an honor to have been asked to address this gathering. I am particularly delighted because the truth is that while I am indeed a very keen follower of sports, all sports, especially West Indies cricket, unlike my friend Andrew Cummings for example, I am certainly not and never have been one of this country’s outstanding sports personalities. As a youngster I tried out at several different sports but there was always a yawning gap between my ability and my boundless enthusiasm.{{more}}

I did play a little table tennis, though, and it was through my involvement in that sport that I first had cause to reflect on certain philosophical aspects of sports. I remember well the occasion. It was in the early 70s. The table tennis association needed funds for a team to travel to Dominica for the Windward Islands championship. Our player/coach, a gentleman by the name of Hurburn Williams, and myself, we made an appointment with the Minister of Sports, Mr. Alphonso Dennie, to beg the Government to give us some funds to make the trip to Dominica. Mr. Dennie met with us. He called us into his office and, after we had stated the purpose of our visit, he began patiently to explain why, at that precise time, the government could not afford to give us any funds. He was very erudite and polite. As I listened to him I thought to myself, Mr Dennie didn’t have to meet with us to tell us this. He was a busy Minister. If he knew there was no money in the kitty he could have sent out a clerk to tell us that he couldn’t see us. There were lots of other people lined up to see him. Some had come all the way from North Leeward. But, on and on Mr Dennie went giving us a perfectly rational explanation why there was no money that we could have for table tennis. The budget was limited. Funds had to be given to this and to that. And so on. Well, Willo (that’s what we called Mr Williams), Willo and I listened to the Minister and nodded understandingly as he spoke because everything that he was saying was true and made sense. And then, when the Minister was done, Willo launched into one of the most impassioned, eloquent defences of sport I had ever heard. He first spoke generally but briefly about the importance of sport to a nation and then he spoke specifically about table tennis. This was a sport that could be played by everyone who could hold a racket. Young and old alike. It was one of the least expensive sports in the country. Unlike cricket or football, you didn’t need a large area to play the game. It was played throughout the world, in every nation. In fact, table tennis was such a unique sport that it was precisely this sport that was used as the vehicle for the thaw in relations between those two mighty nations: China and the United States. When President Nixon wanted to embark upon a new relationship with China he sent the US table tennis team to China on a visit. Willo continued in this vein and it was Mr Dennie’s turn to listen with rapt attention. And he, too, began nodding his head in agreement as Willo spoke because everything that Willo was saying was true and made sense. After a little while, the Minister looked at his watch and interrupted Willo by holding up his hand. He called his Permanent Secretary and he instructed her forthwith to make out a voucher for Table Tennis Association to receive $1000 from the Treasury. In those days that was more than enough to pay our passages to Dominica where we went and competed. We didn’t win the tournament but we didn’t come last either. I’m sure that each of you here this evening has a favourite sport and can tell colourful anecdotes about your own experiences with that sport, whether on or off the field of play.

Tonight, I want to make two fundamental points about sports. You see, sometimes there is a notion, and happily that notion does not abound in official circles in SVG, but among some people there is the notion that sports are of secondary importance; that an individual or a school or a community or indeed the nation can afford to relegate sports to the back burner; that sports in schools must be counterposed to instead of combined with academic work. This is naturally a huge mistake. Sports play a vital role in building character and in engendering national pride. It is around these two issues that I plan to say a few words.

Now let me confess right away that many of the points I intend to make this evening are not original. But I honestly feel that it does no harm to harp on these themes over and over because they are important. So, firstly, let us explore the importance of sport in building character. How does sports build character? Well, let’s just say that through the medium of sport we learn many of the essential lessons of life. We learn, for example, about self-discipline; about responsibility.

A parent or a teacher or a mentor can speak to you about the virtue of perseverance, about the necessity to keep struggling to overcome obstacles in your way, in the words of a famous poem to try and try and try again and you will succeed at last. These are excellent lessons that serve you well in life in any and all areas of endeavour. But these lessons cannot really be taught effectively nor can they be properly learned until and unless they are put into practice. The virtues of perseverance, self discipline and responsibility have to be actually experienced if they are to be fully understood and embraced. Sports afford us, even while we are still very young, that opportunity to learn and to demonstrate the value of those virtues. And even as youngsters, some of us learn these lessons really well.

I remember exactly four years ago, I had just moved to Trinidad. I was following the regional under 15 cricket tournament. Unlike this year, the Windward Islands actually had a great team in 2005 and the results of the final round of matches was going to determine whether the Windwards or Trinidad & Tobago would win the tournament. The Trinidadians had a young batting sensation who opened the innings for them and on whom their team relied tremendously. This boy had been scoring heavily throughout the tournament and in this last and crucial match his opponents felt that there was no way he would be able to keep up his amazing form. Well, to cut a long story short, the young lad again made a ton of runs, Trinidad & Tobago easily won that last match and so they took home the trophy. When the TnT team returned to Trinidad, the youngster was interviewed on the radio. The interviewer asked him: “How is it you were able to keep your focus throughout the entire tournament? Everyone expected you to fail in that last match”. I will never forget the little boy’s response. He said: “Well, I know the team depending on me, so when I go out to bat I tell myself that if I out it come as though as if I die and I didn’t want to die”. And so he batted and he batted and I told myself on hearing that interview, that if at 15 years of age a boy with that talent is such a responsible cricketer I just know that it won’t be long before he is selected to play for the West Indies. And mark my words, it’s just a matter of time before he is selected. There was a good reason why I remember the lad so well. He and I share something in common. His name is Adrian Bharath!

Sports, therefore, teaches us about the relationship between effort and results. And I can tell you about that relationship from my own experience. The only reason I made any headway in table tennis was that I practised such long hours. A group of us from my school, the Iton twins, Eggy Providence and myself, we played table tennis almost every afternoon and on weekends. And although I wasn’t the most skilful, we practised so often that I became good enough to represent the country in Dominica that time and on a few other occasions. Those experiences taught me an important lesson about sport. It’s mostly all about practice; about putting in the time. Anyone who wishes to excel at sport, any athlete who desires to be successful must be prepared to put in the time and the effort; to practice long and hard; to be disciplined and to make tremendous sacrifices for the sport. We worship the best international sportsmen and women – Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi, Shelly-Ann Fraser … just to name a few. We see dazzling images of them doing what they do best. Or we might see them on television, smiling, looking glamorous as they advertise some product. What we rarely see is images of them dragging their tired bodies out of bed at 5 in the morning in order to train. We don’t see them practising for long hours every day, rain, snow or shine. But without such dedication they could never be as good as they are.

Team sports teach us a lot about cooperation. If you play for a team, no matter how good a player you are, if you play selfishly your team’s prospects will suffer. On the contrary, if you are a good team person, if your presence is a positive influence on the chemistry of the team, even if you’re not an excellent player, you will be regarded as a great asset to the team. Your presence will improve the chances of the team succeeding, despite your modest skills. This is why sometimes we have to be circumspect when we criticize selection policies. Sometimes we don’t quite understand how is it that a particular player is selected ahead of a better player. Often it might just be that the one selected is a better team person. The selectors might assess that he or she improves and does not detract from the morale in the team, particularly if the team is on tour. Who wants to tour a foreign country with a sour puss, or a narcissistic braggart or a selfish clown?

Because of my work, the aspect of character building with which I can readily identify is the part sports play in developing a sense of fairness and an understanding of and respect for the rule of law. What do we mean by fairness? Fairness means treating others the way you want to be treated. Every sport has rules. And sportsmen and women must understand the rules, have respect for them, play by them and treat the opposing players, the referee and the spectators with courtesy and consideration. Coaches have a special responsibility to assist in building character. As was said by Dr Mike Thomson, “Coaches are, first and foremost, teachers; they are among the most influential people in a young athlete’s life. Because coaches are such powerful role models, young athletes learn more from them about character than about athletic performance.”

Sadly, at a professional level, sports have become monetised. Professional sports personalities make such enormous sums of money that, human nature being what it is, there is a tremendous temptation to cheat, to use banned substances to enhance performance, to engage in match fixing and other corrupt practices. This is the regrettable reality of professional sports today. International sporting bodies spend huge sums in order to catch the cheats and discipline the law breakers. I happen to have the honour of chairing the WICB’s Disciplinary Committee, and in that capacity I am also a member of the International Cricket Council’s Code of Conduct Commission. And I can tell you that it’s not a pleasant experience to have to deal with these matters. If you cheat, sooner or later you will be caught and disgraced. And even if you are never publicly named and shamed, your fellow players invariably know or have a good sense of who is cheating. And if not to your face, certainly behind your back they will brand you a cheat. And that label will dog you long after you retire from the sport. On the contrary, if on the field of play you are fair and honourable, you might lose a game, maybe, but you will forever win the respect of players and spectators alike.

To be continued next week